Doomed to Failure and Disgrace

When James Madison received his declaration of war against Great Britain from the U.S. Congress, it was the first time the United States took such an act. We had been a nation for less than 29 years, and again, we were at war with Britain.

After the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, England/United Kingdom/Great Britain had taken a very arrogant stance against its former colony, and by 1812, the country had enough. The U.S. war aims were quite straightforward – restore the territorial integrity of the United States and harass the Royal Navy and His Majesty’s merchant marine. This, U.S. leaders believed, would force the British to remove the restrictions against U.S. merchants trading with countries in Europe.

On June 18th, 1812, when Congress declared war, the U.S. Army had roughly 7,000 soldiers on active duty, and the U.S. Navy had 20 vessels, most of which were small and unsuited for war at sea. (see post 9/10/2023 – The Navy’s Unpreparedness for War –…-for-war-in-1812/ ).

Madison and his secretary of war, William Eustis, now had a war on their hands. When they took office, they inherited an Army and Navy that had been horribly underfunded since the end of the war against the Barbary Pirates in 1805.

According to the Center for U.S. Military History at West Point, the U.S. Army had 7,500 men at arms. They were allocated in seven infantry regiments (each with an authorized strength of 800 men), a regiment of riflemen, dragoons (cavalry), and one each of light and heavy artillery. In 1808, the artillery regiments were forced to sell their horses as a cost-saving measure.

In a separate act, Congress increased the authorized strength of the U.S. Army to 35,000 men for 25 infantry, four artillery, and two cavalry regiments plus other units. While it looked good on paper, the expanded army would take time to become a reality.

State militias, which had over 35,000 members in their muster roles in 1812, were also underfunded and rarely trained as units. Militia leadership positions were filled through patronage, not professional military skills.

One of Congress’ first measures was to raise the pay for soldiers and sailors as a recruiting tool. Monthly pay went from $1/month (about $23 in 2023) to $8. A bonus of $16 (~$368 in 2023 dollars) for a five-year enlistment was also offered.

To say the U.S. Army was unprepared for war in 1812 is not hyperbole. Most of its ammunition was left over from the American Revolution. Many of its muskets were found to be rusty and unserviceable. Its regiments hadn’t trained together.

In the first few months of the war, the U.S. garrison of 2,000 men in Detroit surrendered without a fight to 900 soldiers of the British Army. Fort Dearborn, near modern Chicago, surrendered a few weeks later with the loss of more men and another strategic fort.

These defeats were the result of Jefferson’s policy of not properly funding a standing Army and Navy with professional leaders or creating an administrative structure that could support its operations and training.

Benjamin Tallmadge served in the Continental Army with distinction as a cavalry officer during the War for Independence. In 1813, he was a Congressman from Connecticut when he wrote to his friend James McHenry, who had served under Washington and then John Adams as their Secretary of War. Tallmadge was commenting on Congress’ attempt to expand the poor performance of the U.S. Army in 1812. Tallmadge wrote, “… Our Northern & Western Armies seem to be doomed to misfortune and Disgrace.”

1777 John Trumbull Portrait of Benjamin Tallmadge as a major in the 2nd Continental Dragoons.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.